The summer of 2007 was my first real introduction to the Arab world. I had once visited Jordan in 2002 for a week, but the only thing I remember is football and trying something interesting, which they called Nargile. As I told my mother of this new interesting thing I tried with my newly made friends, with her half shocked and half curious voice, “You smoked?” she asked. Having no idea that that was tobacco, I grinned in reply; “It was good”.
In 2007 I was on a family road journey by camper, and Syria was among the countries we visited. It was the pre-election time and in my travel memoir, I remember writing “Syria is a republic… well they say so…there are going be elections in a few days and there is only one candidate, the current president, who is also the son of the previous President. His photos are everywhere; when I say everywhere I mean it. On car windows, posters, photos inside shops, t-shirts, everywhere!!! The only time you might escape from his sight is when you sleep”.
I vividly remember that, and I also remember the peculiar sight at the border crossing between Syria and Jordan, of assisting at only men dancing in ecstasy to loud Arabian music, holding flags of Syria, posters of the President and shouting his name.
We had come in into Syria through Turkey, an experience which I described in the following words: “It is strange how only a small territorial change can make big difference, in culture as well as in geographical scenario. The whole cultural atmosphere had changed. Entering Syria was like putting on tighter underwear. You could see many more covered women, a feeling of orthodoxy and the openness to other cultures was much more limited.”
In the past two years I’ve had the opportunity of visiting Syria more often, understand better its culture, its people, its policies and its neighbors. An experience which has changed my understanding of Syria. When I went to Damascus in 2009 I was surprised to see so many banks, ATMs and foreign clothing and food chains. This was just the surface view, of what I could imagined must have been the outcome of a change in the foreign and economic policy. I breathed space, both special, since I was coming from cemented Beirut, and social, as I could sense a change in the freedom of expression and opportunity of the youth. I felt Syria was on the path of being capable of holding to a healthy and strong Arab identity and yet finding openness and integration of the western ideals and market structures.
On the 28th of April 2011, in between the scary news being reported by the non-Syrian media, I was on my way from Beirut towards Damascus. With no idea of what would await me, I was on a taxi with two young Syrian ladies and camera in my bag. No journalists were allowed in Syria. I was not a journalist but I did not know if my camera would be allowed or not. At the border I was stopped for 10 minutes and enquired about. I met two different officers, one for my visa and one for my luggage. They were doing their duty, but surely with the most polite voice that an enquiry permits,. By the end we were joking in broken English. The camera also passed. I was a tourist, not an opinion maker of the western media. If I imagine how developing country citizens are often treated when they visit the developed country embassies, I can only say that this was an enquiry on a red carpet.
As we entered Syria, the young girl turned around and said, “There are problems in Syria, but it is safe. Just try not to go out late at night”. Then after a few seconds she turned back again, this time with a curious look, she asked, “I am Christian and he [the driver] is Muslim and there are no problems. Why do the Westerners, who are facing so much problems in accepting a multi-cultural life and society, wish to attack us, who live in perfect harmony?”
I smiled, I did not know what else to do for I could not agree more. Syria is among those countries where people found space to express and explicate their religions. Home to various Muslim schools, Syria is also home to many Christian schools. Christianity today is homed in the Vatican, but its nurturing come from the lands around here, we have all heard of the famous story of Saint Paul on his voyage to Damascus.
Syria today is witnessing a popular uprising since more than 2 months and with over 1,000 demonstrator dead – according to the statistics given by various local civil society organizations. No facts can be confirmed, no death toll verified and this is partly due to the restrictions issued by the Syrian Government on any foreign media– none of them can enter the country. In fact an Al Jazeera journalist, who tried her luck, was arrested on arrival.
We know that journalists are not allowed. Surely the negation of a free flow of information is always wrong and will always put the authority improvising such restriction in a bad light. But have we asked ourselves why such restrictions have been imposed?
On Sunday, 5th of May 2011, more than 20 peaceful Syrian protesters were shot dead by Israeli forces during a protest on the border between Israel and Syria. Have we ever asked ourselves why when Israel shoots peaceful protesters, it’s called self-defense, and when the Syrian authority shoot peaceful protestants, it’s called oppression?
It is this change in words, this bias of the most western medias: to change facts, to narrate half the story, to find the dramatic news, to find the easy story and the easy narration. It is this kind of news that I think the Syrian Government is scared of, and they have all the right to be so, for surely there are many examples of bias reporting, especially when it comes to this region of the world.
When seen from the news, Syria looks like a permanently under attack country, but life was completely normal during my stay in Damascus, from the 28th of April to the 14th of June. Young boys and girls met around in cafes and went out during weekends, shops were open, schools were open, cars and taxis were moving across the city, businesses never stopped and nor did government institutions. The only time I came to know that Syria was [supposedly] a dangerous place was when I watched TV and occasionally on the quite Fridays.
There is a public opinion rising in Syria but not a desire to see their country’s political regime being completely overthrown. There is no desire to see foreign troops bombing them to “liberate” them; there is no desire to have a power vacuum. Syria is not Libya. Syria was probably the most stable country in the whole region, in the recent past, and, somehow, a potentially dangerous state for the West. Today Syria, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan have strong alliances, both economic and political, with no visa requirements and work permits, and this surely can be a reason of worry for the West and their strong ally, Israel.
I think that what we see in the Syrian political scenario today is the division of two major ideologies: those who would like to implement reforms and those who belong to the former Assad regime and are scared of such reforms – and since they were used to the military power to suppress any agitation, they still believe it to be the only real solution. I assert this conclusion from the fact that Syria is not a dictatorial monarchy, in fact we saw very little of President Assad speaking to the public, meaning that there are many other players in the game. For sure the Syrian Government has exaggerated in its measures against the protest, but this does not mean that we are not careful of the power games in the region.
Public opinion is very important, but only an intelligent and aware public opinion, both in the country and outside the country, can bring create intelligent decisions. Syria is a very strategic country for the whole Arab region. It connects the Persian, the Turkish and the Arab world and it is a very strong power against Israel, a reality one needs to be aware of when discussing these protests. Then the fact remains that we do not know how peaceful all these protests are, for we have seen images of burned Syrian Government offices and on the 6th of May 2011, we were given the news of more than 100 killed soldiers.
More over, in a sectarian country like Syria, if the regime suddenly falls, who will fill it in? Would a power gap lead to sectarian violence? Probably it will. But with no government in place, who will protect the people? Surely Israel will be the happiest country if Syria enters a social and political turmoil, with more control over the Golan Heights, a weaker Hezbollah in Lebanon and a weaker Iran-Turkey-Syria alliance. A weak Syria would also mean a weaker Palestine struggle, and with the Palestinian authority appearing in September in front of all UN to ask for recognition, what more could Israel ask for?
Syria has seen great economic development in the recent years, and now what many people are demanding, as young Syrians told me, is to see the same change in the political reforms. A stable society, according to the Human Development approach, requires “Civil, Social, Political and Economic Freedoms” as Prof. Shiva Kumar, a development economist, says. The Syrian people are demanding all these freedoms and not the creation of an instable country with a power gap, leading them back to a situation where the total “freedoms” maybe much worse than the one before the protests.
When talking about the Syrian protest one forgets why the media is not emphasizing on the revolt in Baharain (where the Saudi have send their army and the F1 GP is still going to happen), the revolt in Saudi Arabia (where everyone who revolted was killed) and of how many human rights violations have been done by Israel, of how many Palestinians are dispersed as refugees. We do not talk about the fact that Syria educates all the children of the Iraqi refugees (a reality caused by the American invasion) in Syria. One forgets to see what would happen if the government is overthrown, since there is no real political opposition Syrian leader.
I am not here to assert what the reality of the Syrian protest is, but just to ask you to reflect before making opinions about the Syrian situation and about the western media’s reporting. It is important to realize that democracy is a process for which people need to be empowered to have the capacity to live in a democratic society. I did not see the current regime as a power hungry regime like Libya or Tunisia, but a regime which was paving a path towards a real republic, which often needs a phase of inteligent monarchy before it. How many years of monarchy did we have in Europe before attaining democracy? Let us allow the Arab world also to go through this process, for surely, democracy cannot be imposed by an external agent.
I trust the intelligence of the Syrian people, we should help that intelligence to achieve real freedom and not give them, or us, a false promise of a perceived freedom.